Friday, April 25, 2008
Simon said, Night 3: "American Tunes" at BAM
Enjoyed the hell out of "American Tunes," the third and final installment of BAM's Paul Simon retrospective. The format pretty much followed that of Under African Skies--various artists playing covers of Simon's songs, interspersed with the Man's own turns--but this one left that one in the dust, mainly because, for the most part, the guests all brought some pretty heavy ideas to the table.
Playing a cover version is tense to begin with--i.e., there's the constant "How will it measure up? vibe--but at these shows, the pressure was even more intense. That is to say, if any of the performers sucked, you were way bummed that it wasn't Simon himself singing. I felt that way a lot of the time at Under African Skies--I'm looking at you, Vusi Mahlasela, who turned in a subpar "Boy in the Bubble" at that show--but only really once tonight, during the Roches opening "American Tune."
Laal and I are both completely obsessed with this song--if you don't know it, you MUST check out this 1975 solo version on ye olde YouTube--but neither of us were very down with tonight's version. The Roches are a three-sisters vocal group who first worked with Simon in the early '70s, and their quirky, somewhat dazed stage demeanor would seem to suggest that they haven't really played out since. "American Tune" is not necessarily a song I want to hear done harmony-style; it has a solitary, reflective vibe that seems better for a lone singer. So while the women exuded a certain dorky charm, it was an inauspicious beginning.
Afterward, Simon and his band rocked the first of several mini sets, beginning with "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," a tune that has grown on me greatly in recent months. It was of course stunningly awesome to see Steve Gadd reprise his sick drum lick from the original recording (check this YouTube demo, which Joe alerted me to; the dude is im-fucking-perturbable). Then came "Mrs. Robinson," which was pleasant enough.
Things really got rolling with Grizzly Bear. I don't know their own music so well, but I like what I've heard--atmospheric, stylized, slightly psychedelic indie pop. They took the biggest risks of anyone on the bill, and really transported the show to a surreal place. They only did two songs, which was kind of a bummer--and to Laal's and my dismay, no "Papa Hobo," as was promised during my Time Out interview with guitarist-singer Daniel Rossen--but they were great ones. First was a version of "Graceland," which the band has been covering for a while (an early version can be heard here), and they're not the only ones as Owen Ashworth played this at last week's Casiotone show. This one was cool, but it was the next one, a totally out-there version of "Mother and Child Reunion" that really snapped me to attention. It was spare, slow, almost dirgelike, and totally lacking the lighthearted festiveness of the original. With Ed Droste's ethereal vocals and Rossen's liquid reverb, the song took on an almost gothic quality. Totally left-field and nearly morbid, this was a showstopper.
Also retooling things majorly was bluesguy Olu Dara (interestingly enough, Nas's dad and a pretty sick avant-jazz brass player back in the day), who did these odd, sly pop-blues versions of "Slip Slidin' Away" and "Still Crazy After All These Years." "Slip Slidin'" was way too casual for me; that song is fracking devastating and there's really no sense trying to put an easygoing spin on it, as OD did. But his rakish, almost Dr. John-ish vibe worked extremely well for "Still Crazy," which has a desolation vibe, but also one of weariness, of self-deprecating resignation. Talk-singing his way through lines like "4 in the morning / Crapped out, yawning / Longing my life away," OD sounded nothing like Simon, but gave the song a new cast, more wise than dejected. It was sly and subtle and it worked real well.
Josh Groban (for those who don't know, a kind of popera divo). Man, you know what? I really liked the hell out of his little set. I was expecting knee-deep cheese, and that's sort of what went down, but with the songs he picked, this actually worked fine. He's got this almost comically proper voice--belted with heaps of stylized vibrato and don't-even-think-about-it pitch perfection--and it was a perfect match for his first number "America," sung alone at the piano. The thing is, as beautiful as it is, I've always felt that that song was sort of comically proper in and of itself--like some too-brainy Ivy Leaguer's version of "On the Road." So it fit Groban perfectly, and there was really no way you could scoff at the unabashed way he just roared out the tune. Same goes for "Bridge Over Troubled Water"--again, a borderline cheesy song, but when Groban rocked it in duet w/ Simon, you knew that was how it was meant to be done. In a way Groban was like a stand-in for Garfunkel, with that same utterly humorless grandiosity and nerdy perfectionism. Again, though, I was really glad to have heard a singer so goshdarn PRO.
Next was an unassuming but really nice set by Amos Lee, who's sort of this pop-soul dude. Haven't heard his own music--and honestly, wouldn't really be that psyched to--but he came out there with just an acoustic guitar and busted out one of my favorite Simon tunes, "Peace Like a River," from the godly Parka Album (which I blogged on a ways back). Simple, soulful, solid. (Though maybe not as awesome as Spoon's badass electric version, which can be viewed here.) Lee's other tunes, including "Homeward Bound" with Simon and band, were nice but kinda uneventful.
Gillian Welch (that's her above) was next and she was just flawless--I don't know from country music, but her voice is what that shit *should* sound like: bell-clear, twanged-up but not showily, and warmly luminous. I felt like I was at the Opry. She had a dude harmonizing with her and busting out some badass acoustic leads. But she didn't need the help, as she absolutely gleamed through some of Simon's most moving songs, including "Duncan" (dear god, what a song that is) and ... "The Boxer" (dear jesus, what a song THAT is) and... "Sound of Silence" (i won't even go there), sung w/ Simon. Before "Duncan," Welch announced, "This is a sad song in a minor key--my kind of song," and you could tell why. Her voice caressed and elevated these classic pieces--Simon couldn't have asked for a better interpreter. Now that I'm thinking about it, she might've been the single most stunning guest on any of the three programs.
Simon closed things out with some sine-qua-non tunes, such as "Me and Julio," which was nice and upbeat--and which featured a sick Gadd drum break--and "The Only Living Boy in New York" (eff you, Zach Braff; I loved that song first!), which was its usual glorious self. Also a few unexpected ones in there, such as "How Can You Live in the Northeast," a really eccentric tune from the recent "Surprise" album that gave Simon's band a chance to kick into a gnarly, distorted, almost grungelike stomp, and "Train in the Distance," one of Simon's classic doomed-love tunes from "Hearts and Bones" (featuring this great stanza: "Two disappointed believers / Two people playing the game / Negotiations and love songs / Are often mistaken for one and the same" plus another killer: "What is the point of this story / What information pertains / The thought that life could be better / Is woven indelibly / Into our hearts / And our brains). Simon demonstrated some of his classic, vaguely amused, weary and almost flippant so-it-goes cynicism during this one: As he sung "And in a while they fell apart," he made a dismissive hand gesture, as if swatting a fly.
"Late in the Evening" (which, interestingly, also closed the Songs from the Capeman show) was the grand finale, and it shifted things into party mode, with much dancing, or at least attempts thereof, from the audience.
There isn't much I can say in summation of "Love in Hard Times" other than that Simon is a monster songwriter. Does anyone else have such a deep oeuvre? I think BAM did him right by giving him such a wide platform, I really do. Even with all this showtime, there were so many great songs that went unplayed, from ones I was surprised not to hear ("The Obvious Child" and "Kodachrome," to name two) to those I would have killed to hear ("Congratulations," "April Come She Will," the aforementioned "Papa Hobo"--really anything off Parka--"Hearts and Bones," the list goes on). I could honestly see this being an annual thing--get some more indie folks out, like the obvious Vampire Weekend, and some more awesome stars (Eddie Vedder, anyone?) and you could do this just as effectively with a totally different lineup. These works can stand up to a whole lot--though as Under African Skies proved, they ain't invincible--and that's the mark of an all-time-special songbook: It was cool that Simon himself was there, but he didn't *need* to be so long as the material was.